Skip to main content

What could be so important about my father’s U-boat?


Bear Island
(1979)

It shouldn’t really be that easy to stumble across hitherto unencountered Alistair MacLean movies. There have been fewer than 15 big screen adaptations of his work over the years; the failure of Bear Island all but killed any continued interest in an author who had been highly prolific during the ’60s and ‘70s. MacLean aficionados will opine that his novels tend to be unsympathetically re-envisioned, bearing (ahem) little resemblance to his original masterpieces, but it’s difficult to buy into any notion that works of art are being desecrated.


MacLean churned out standard format boy’s own adventure yarns, usually involving spies or WWII escapades, and the resulting movies are invariably undistinguished fodder for weekend TV matinees; hence their forgettableness (and conversely, their discoverability). Everyone is familiar with (less than) a handful of adaptations (The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra), but his heyday in the movies had passed by the early ‘70s. Unsurprisingly, Bear Island has few credentials plot-wise to make its case as an undiscovered gem. Nor has it assembled an amazing cast (an idiosyncratically chosen one, certainly). But it does have something very vital going for it. One might argue it represents merely a superficial factor if the script isn’t there. But, in an era of CGI breath and fake snow, the movie’s accomplishment is all the more arresting; authenticity of location.


Bear Island features no bears, which should be made clear from the outset. The setting is the Norwegian island of the same name, although director Don Sharp and his cast and crew shot in British Columbia. Indeed, the film’s one claim to fame (since no one saw it) was the adverse publicity surrounding its $9m (US) cost; up to that point Canada’s most expensive film. It’s difficult to see why the producers thought such an investment would pay off, other than through a failure to recognise the shifting sands of audience interests following the arrival of Lucas, Spielberg et al. Unlike other big budget bombs of the period, it’s easy to see why the picture cost as much as it did; logistically, a shoot in such conditions would not be cheap. And, in terms of vistas, the results are all up there on screen.


Particularly during the early stages, the atmosphere created by this vast, desolate, snowy expanse is palpable. Haunting and evocative, it put me increasingly in mind of another film that opted to genuinely facing the elements, also in British Columbia; John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’d be surprised if Carpenter had not seen Bear Island; he would surely have been aware of it. Once that connection has been made, it’s easy to draw further parallels between the two; all Bear Island really needed was a beserk alien creature to engage the viewer, although a beserk creature in pursuit of Nazi gold might have been a difficult motivation to justify. Nevertheless, both pictures feature a group of difficult to individualise scientists inhabiting a remote outpost in sub-zero conditions; some of whom are not who they claim to be, their numbers are gradually whittled down, they are cut off from rescue, they are increasingly subject to sabotage and the intrusion of the elements. Certainly, during the mid-section, when a team member goes out to check on the generator (which then explodes), I could have momentarily forgotten which film I was watching.


Unfortunately, there is little else too make this compelling. Sharp, who worked in a variety of British TV (The Avengers) and film (the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series, the not-bad-at-all Robert Powell The 39 Steps the year before this) stages the action competently, and cinematographer Alan Hume mostly ensures the joins between the exteriors and the Pinewood sets are not too obvious. But the premise and scenario are murky from the off. Introductions inform us this is a collection of UN-sanctioned scientists sent to study climate change in the area (changed from the novel, which featured a movie making crew). It sounds quite topical, but we never see them studying anything. I’m not even clear why the members of the party intent on plundering the gold required such a cover. Wouldn’t they have free rein to do pretty what they wanted on this barren wasteland (the nearby UN base seems oblivious to what’s going on)?


As soon as they arrive, Donald Sutherland’s beardy American Lansing (Sutherland’s Canadian status may explain his unlikely action lead duties; he reportedly took the part because he’d taken up sailing as a pastime) wants to check out the derelict U-boat base; his daddy was a U-boat commander, you see. Lansing effortlessly figures out what is going on, so the only intrigue left available is who is doing what and why. Sharp and his co-writers are so clumsy tossing frozen red herrings about it is quickly evident that anyone who comes under suspicion can’t be the true culprit (no double double-bluffs here). But there’s a greater problem in not really caring who is doing what and why. There are several parties after the precious metal, but there seem to be a greater number of faceless bystanders who never get a look in.


Reinforcing the pulpiness of the material, several of the cast have that “I’ll appear in anything as long as it’s crap” credentials. Richard Widmark is a Norwegian (he’d just come off The Swarm, so was clearly on a roll). Lloyd Bridges, is not yet consciously going for self-parody, but that’s the only difference between what he does here and the following year’s Airplane! Sharp regular Christopher Lee is a Pole, but he’s sadly under-used. Then there’s Vanessa Redgrave, also sporting a interesting accent, as the kind-of love interest. It’s rather refreshing to find Redgrave and Sutherland in such traditionally macho fare, but unfortunately their presence signifies little. Sutherland perhaps isn’t at his best, as he requires more than a one-note hero to bring out his eccentricities. Still, at least he gets stuck into an unlikely bout of fisticuffs. He would return to an unwelcoming island in Eye of the Needle, another Nazi-related picture, two years later. A very young Bruce Greenwood plays a technician, in his movie debut.


The plot wasn’t going to stand up to scrutiny under the best of circumstances, but the lack of distractions highlights a number of gaping holes; no one would seriously go along with Widmark dismissing calls for outside help, not when team members are dropping like flies. And wither the strange decision by Sutherland and Redgrave to make off on piddly little snow scooters, leaving the bad guys to take advantage of the much more impressive hydro-copters?


Occasional moments suggest something much more interesting could be done with this setting; there’s a highly impressive U-boat pen set that is barely used. The sight of a handcuffed skeleton in a German uniform suggests the discovery of long buried secrets; it’s rather typical of MacLean that said secrets turn out to be boring old ingots. If the makers had veered off into something offbeat and uncanny, Bear Island might at least retain cult appeal. But its plotting is too unexceptional to lend it status beyond that of a handsomely mounted, ploddingly predictable adventure yarn.

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979) Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.